TOKYO -- Japan's governing Liberal Democrats limped into the unknown today, staggered by an unprecedented backbench rebellion that overthrew plans by the elderly party barons to name Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's successor.
Hours after Mr. Miyazawa announced that he would resign as party president, junior members of parliament angrily attacked the personality-based and money-driven LDP factions that have
controlled governments here for 38 years.
Years of resentment welled up as the junior members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, called their own leaders "criminals" whose corruption is "making all of us laughingstocks when we go out on the street."
After more than two hours of virtually nonstop rage, the first half-hour carried live on nationwide television, Secretary-General Seiroku Kajiyama withdrew the barons' plan to appoint a Unity and Advancement Council of faction leaders and elders to name the new party president, who automatically becomes the LDP candidate for prime minister.
"The ancien regime has fallen," Shokei Arai, 47, a Diet member, said after helping to hand the barons a defeat unequaled in the Liberal Democratic Party's history.
For the first time, a secret ballot of LDP elected officials will choose the next party president, Mr. Kajiyama said, acceding to the junior members' demands.
"Keeping the party unified is the No. 1 priority at this time," he said.
Five weeks ago, the walkout by dozens of "reformist" LDP members brought down Mr. Miyazawa's Cabinet and forced Sunday's election, in which the LDP failed to win a majority for the first time since it was founded in 1955.
A month-old club of 98 remaining younger members is demanding that the LDP "rebuild" itself. By its existence, the new club carries the clout of an unstated threat that its members, too, may walk out if the barons don't give ground.
The LDP rebellion was one half of an extraordinary daylong double-feature of televised history in the making.
The other show featured a frail-looking Shin Kanemaru, 78, until last fall the LDP's baron of barons, being rolled into court in a wheelchair to plead not guilty to the tax-evasion charges that touched off the current political upheaval.
He said the tens of millions of dollars in bearer bonds, cash and gold bars seized from his houses and offices in March were "political contributions" that he planned to use to "restructure" 00 Japanese politics.
The trial is to begin Sept. 7, but a verdict could take years, and appeals could take decades.
The backbenchers' revolt yesterday was so unheard-of in Japan that television replays gripped the nation for much of the afternoon and evening.
Junior members of the Diet spiced the rebellion with language seldom heard in Japanese political discourse, least of all from party members speaking of their own leaders.
Seiichi Ota, 48, reached back tothe end of World War II and the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, in which "Class A" war criminals like Hideki Tojo were hanged and lesser punishments went to "Class B" and "Class C" criminals.
"Prime Minister Miyazawa was no more than a Class C criminal, yet he has been pulled down," Mr. Ota declared, shaking his microphone at the leaders on the rostrum. "Up on that rostrum, there are plenty of Class A and Class B criminals who still need to be punished."
"Nobody invited me to help decide about any 'Unity and Advancement Council,' and I only found out about it by reading newspapers this morning," Mr. Arai said. "Don't count on me any more to accept responsibility for decisions you make without inviting me to the meeting."
For nearly four decades, the man chosen as LDP president has automatically become Japan's prime minister. But whether the LDP will be able to find the votes this time is very much up in the air.
The head of the "reformist" Japan New Party (JNP), which holds the potential swing vote in the new house, said yesterday that he wants to work
with opposition forces to create a coalition government that would throw the LDP out of power for the first time in its history.
The LDP had been counting hard on the JNP as a potential coalition partner.
The JNP leader, Morihiro Hosokawa, had made it no secret that he did not want to work with the leaders of one member of the opposition coalition, the Japan Renewal Party, who until last fall were the chief proteges of the now-disgraced Mr. Kanemaru.
But Wednesday, at a meeting of newly elected JNP Diet members, Mr. Hosokawa, too, faced rebellion in the ranks. An overwhelming majority rejected any form of cooperation with the LDP and called on him to work with the opposition coalition.
By late last night, the LDP, which less than a year ago ranked as one of the world's most powerful and self-assured political parties, had only the most general picture of how it will now go about selecting its next president.
In 1989, the party made a show of electing Toshiki Kaifu by a secret ballot conducted before television cameras. But everyone knew that he had been consecrated in advance by Mr. Kanemaru and his fellow faction bosses.
Since last month, Mr. Kaifu, whose Cabinet was brushed aside by Mr. Miyazawa and Mr. Kanemaru 20 months ago, has headed the new club of reformist LDP junior Dietmen. He is widely expected to be among those nominated for party president.
Details of this year's party election will be drafted in an intricate process that begins today. What is at stake is the glue that has held together the system in which the LDP elders grew up.
For decades, the faction heads have divvied up the spoils -- Cabinet ministries and powerful party positions -- in back-room meetings before allowing a formal vote. That way, they have been able to keep the party together by assuring that each faction got its share of the power and glory.
Since Sunday's election, aged barons who have waited decades for their shots at high positions have watched in unaccustomed impotence as their chances have grown more remote with each day's news.